Women play games. In fact, 47 percent of all gamers are female. Despite this fact, there are people who still seek to label video gaming as a “guys only” activity. These aren’t just the blatantly misogynistic get-back-to-the kitchen types, mind you. They’re ordinary people. People you probably know: friends, family, employers, teachers, loved ones – you name it. This stereotype comes from the culture around us and the media we consume. It’s something that affects all of us, men and women alike, and it will take many years of hard work to shake. Thankfully there are people who are hard at work getting more people to join the conversation about representations of social identities in games.
Many of you have probably heard of Anita Sarkeesian already. She appeared in headlines this year and last year regarding the Internet’s explosive reception of her project. She’s not the first person to examine the role of gender in video games. Far from it, actually. But she suddenly found herself under a great deal of journalistic attention when her Kickstarter campaign for her YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games came under fierce attack. People accused her of spreading misandry, embezzling funds, really anything you can imagine. The harassment was so bad, in fact, that someone even made a game which allows players to physically abuse her.
The horrendous treatment did not deter Sarkeesian, amazingly, and she ultimately raised over 25 times her initial goal. And on March 7th, after months of work, Sarkeesian released the first episode of her series. And you need to see it.
Games love helpless women.
Her first video examines the trope of the Damsel in Distress. Gamers should be very familiar with this one. Really, the number of games that feature this trope is staggering.
Why does it appear so often? Sarkeesian argues that it has been overused as an “easy and sensational plot device” that serves as “lazy justification for gameplay.” Video game designers are tasked with overcoming the inherent difficulty in extending empathy across player and character. When stepping into a character’s shoes, players cannot just know who they’re playing and what they’re like. Designers must instead use signposts and narrative tricks (such as flashbacks and cutscenes) to establish the player-character’s identity. The damsel in distress is one of these tools.
Blame the ape.
In the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong, Nintendo tasked players with rescuing a woman named Pauline from the barrel-hurling Donkey Kong. Pauline serves as a motivating force to the player. Quick! Go save the girl! The game never needs to directly state the goal. Once players reach Pauline, they’re shown a small, pixelated heart, a brief visual reward which keeps players dumping quarters into the cabinet.
Well that’s all good and fine, right? After all, Donkey Kong wasn’t trying to make any of their characters believable or complex. It wasn’t making any overt claims against women and their abilities. The characters were simple stand-in analogues for roles in the film King Kong. Hero, damsel, and villain. But the popularity of the game set a precedent for game designers. It was a proof of concept that the damsel in distress was an effective trope to motivate gamers. And we’ve seen the same story over and over and over again since.
Sarkeesian’s video examines the trope much more closely than I have here, and promises to look at ways in which the trope has been used in a positive light in the next part of the series. “Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value,” Sarkeesian argues, “But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.”
“These games don’t exist in a vacuum.”
It can be difficult to convey exactly why these representations ultimately matter. However, as video games are terribly expensive to produce, we have access to important marketing data which shows measurable impacts that gender has on this form of media.
In November 2012, Ben Kuchera wrote an article about a phone interview he had with Geoffrey Zatkin EEDAR, a highly influential video game market research firm in Carlsbad, California. During the interview, Kuchera learned of some deeply troubling statistics. Of 669 action, shooter, and RPG games that EEDAR sampled in the past seven years, only 300 had an optional female lead character. These games typically earned about 25 percent less than games which exclusively featured a male protagonist. Even worse, only 24 of those games exclusively featured women as central characters. These games sold about 75 percent worse than their male counterparts.
The Influence of the Market
One of the largest factors influencing this difference in revenue is the lack of funding that female-led games receive for advertising. “Games with a female only protagonist got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,” Zatkin said. Are we setting these games up to fail?
In her video, Sarkeesian states that “there is nothing keeping developers from evolving their gender representations and making more women heroes in future games.” Unfortunately, it appears that sales figures like the ones EEDAR revealed invalidate her claim. Producers listen closely to the advice of companies such as EEDAR. If they are told that a game with a female lead won’t sell well, they will choose a male protagonist instead. They are after maximum profit, not artistic integrity.
This has unfortunately led to the butchering of titles such as Rare’s 1999 Dinosaur Planet, which was later repurposed as Star Fox Adventures. The original title featured a strong and capable version of Krystal the Fox. The transformed version of the game removed much of Krystal’s clothing and made her significantly more prone to being frozen in crystal, which led to some downright awkward moments meant to appeal to an assumed heterosexual male audience.
Recently, we are starting to see more producers who dare to feature female leads. However, games like Beyond: Two Souls and Tomb Raider are still treated by journalists as oddities. They often feel the need to comment on the developer’s choice to feature a complex female protagonist. Even Aliens: Colonial Marines hesitated to include women in the game despite the strong feminist message of the film that inspired it. Have we become so accustomed to the same old heterosexual male fanservice that anything else feels alien?
There is a seemingly endless list of problems that stereotypical gender representations in video games exacerbates. We are often forced to view game worlds through “the male gaze.” We are typically forced to assume male avatars in competitive games, particularly in shooters. And women in particular are forced to face an overwhelmingly misogynistic culture whenever participating in online play. Females, both adult and adolescent, are exposed to messages like these over and over again when they reveal their gender online. I know more than a few female gamers who refuse to use voice chat because of this.
Let me make this clear. This is not just a problem for women to deal with. Representations of masculinity in video gaming is also terribly two dimensional and problematic. Sarkeesian’s approach to studying gender in video games is only one of many. She chooses to focus specifically on representations of women. Another project, Tropes vs Men in Video Games, promised to conduct a study similar to Sarkeesian’s that looked at male tropes in video games. It has unfortunately vanished, and I worry about the potentially negative impact this will have on the idea of studying gender. The specific representations men are given in games need to be studied just as much as the specific representations of women. All genders deserve this treatment, as do all other social identities. Hopefully these studies will help spread cultural awareness of the media we enjoy so thoroughly. The more we talk about them, the more developers and publishers will listen and begin to take more “daring” risks with their characters.
But for now there is plenty that we can do to get the ball rolling. People are harassed online based on their identity more often than we like to admit. Internet anonymity is a double-edged sword. It provides a space where people only identify in ways they feel comfortable with (excluding voice chat, of course). It is very difficult to fend against an anonymous assailant. But many online games and services feature a reporting system. Please utilize this, as it’s one of the few utilities available to combat this form of bullying.
Have discussions. As Sarkeesian stated in her TEDxWomen talk, “It’s not just going to go away if we ignore it.” Talk with your peers about the way gender is being represented in games, books, film, and media as a whole. Get them thinking. Avoid preaching, as it is not possible to forcefully change somebody’s mind. You can only facilitate discussion.
Educate yourself. Do a Google search. There are hundreds of resources available that will inform you on issues of diversity and representation in video games. And don’t stop at women. Examine depictions of men. Trans. Genderfluid. Examine depictions of sexuality, age, ability, race, nationality, faith. There are hundreds of resources and millions of discussions to be had.
What does this all say about video games? It says that games are growing up. Its more immature side is not going down without a fight, sure. But we’re witnessing the process. And resources like Tropes vs. Women in Video Games prove that games are impacting mainstream culture enough to merit their serious study. If that doesn’t make you take pride in your media, I don’t know what will.